The Bipartisan Infrastructure Mess

President Donald Trump at the State of the Union shakes hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Washington, D.C., February 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool via Reuters)

Some time ago, President Trump’s team produced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, which was really a $200 billion infrastructure plan with some wishful thinking attached. The president now says he never supported any such thing — “Gary’s thing,” he calls it, referring to Gary Cohn, the Democrat and Goldman Sachs veteran who once served as Trump’s principal economic adviser — and now the president has joined forced with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on something new: a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which also is composed mainly of wishful thinking.

Call us bipartisan, but when Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer all agree to spend $2 trillion — without quite deciding what they’re going to spend it on or where the money’s coming from — we start to hear from our inner Patrick Henry.

Instead of “Gary’s thing,” we have Gary’s thing with 33 percent more loot. What could possibly go wrong?

You can tell this is backward by the fact that the triumvirate has settled on a price tag — an incomprehensibly large one — but is remarkably fuzzy on what’s to be bought with that $2 trillion. Imagine taking your car to the mechanic and hearing, “That’ll be $10,000” — without ever being told what’s actually being repaired. You might begin to suspect that something is not entirely on the up-and-up.

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We have been here before, with Barack Obama and his “shovel-ready” projects. The lesson of Obama’s failed stimulus bill — which was in considerable part an infrastructure program — is that doing things backwards does not work. Appropriations first, projects second, is as backwards as it can be. That’s apparent in both the specific successes and general failure of the Obama stimulus. For example, Michael Grabell of the New York Times cites the decommissioning of the nuclear plant at the Savannah River Site at Aiken, S.C., as a model of how these projects should work. The cleanup was, in fact, ready to go: All that was needed was $1.6 billion to make it happen. “As soon as the money arrived in the summer of 2009, the retired cold war nuclear plant hired thousands of workers to decommission reactors . . . . The county’s unemployment dropped to 8.5 percent from 10.2 percent in a matter of months.” The local economic improvement was a happy side effect of the federal government doing a job that needed doing and that was ready to be done. Compare that with vague programs calling for “weatherization” or other ill-defined improvements.

“Infrastructure” is not an undifferentiated commodity, a lump of all-purpose putty that we can just order up more or less of as circumstances dictate. Infrastructure instead consists of many thousands of discrete projects, some of which are mainly federal responsibilities, some of which are primarily state and local jobs that may or may not merit federal assistance. And that is how “infrastructure” should be dealt with: on a case-by-case basis. That is why we have this splendidly specialized array of committees and subcommittees and bureaucracies and congressional procedure. And that, not a once-in-a-generation all-in multitrillion-dollar “fix,” is how responsible adults deal with roads and bridges and the like.

We note that figuring out how to pay for this is at the bottom of the current agenda. To the extent that it’s being talked about at all, there already is fundamental and probably unbridgeable disagreement: Some of the Democrats want to undo the 2017 tax cuts, others want to raise the federal gasoline tax. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) insisted: “It is up to President Trump to work with us by identifying new revenue to support that investment.” But revenue bills originate in the House of Representatives, not in the Oval Office.

This is not a sane way to proceed. If you aren’t willing to spend the money for particulars on a case-by-case basis, then you shouldn’t be spending the money as a generality in one big heap.

Congressional Republicans already have made known some reservations about this plan. In particular, they have preemptively said no to rolling back the 2017 tax cuts, which Senator Schumer insists is a precondition for exploring other options, such as raising the gasoline tax. The thing is already a mess before it has got started.

It is not going to get any better. The infrastructure scheme deserves to die an early and unlamented legislative death. It’s just another variation on Gary’s thing.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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